Edit (5/21/2012): Mormon Stories has grown too negative for me, so I'm done with it. I hope someday it can be a more positive experience for believers like me.
I like to listen to podcasts while I run. Sadly, I don’t run as much as I should. I’ve also taken to listening to them while I do the dishes (Susan cooks, I do the dishes). One day several years ago I decided to toss in “Mormon” to the iTunes search engine and see what popped up. Mormon Stories was one of the big hits, and I saw there was an interview with Richard Bushman, a man I greatly admire for both his scholarship and his faith.
I kept listening to the podcast over the past few years and have really enjoyed the ones I’ve listened to. Of particular note were the ones with Grant and Heather Hardy (Grant wrote “Understanding the Book of Mormon,” which, in my opinion, is one of the best analyses of the Book of Mormon ever), and with Lisa Butterworth, the founder of Feminist Mormon Housewives. But there are interviews with scholars, therapists, leaders, ex-Mormons, apologists, etc. etc. etc. John Dehlin, the man behind the podcast, is certainly a person who focuses much on Mormons of all stripes, and I appreciate that. It’s nice to hear different stories and opinions. Filter bubbles are bad, as I’ve blogged about before.
John’s original project is to create a space where Mormons of all stripes can come together to talk about things, whatever they want to. The genesis of his idea he sums up in this youtube video, much of which I agree with, some of which I do not. I’m linking it here, but be warned, it’s like an hour long. Might be worth the look though. I found it worthwhile.
Of late the project has actually turned into local communities. Through facebook John and Anne Peffer, another person who helps with the logistics and things of the podcast, have organized regional Mormon Stories groups. Their called “support communities,” which gave me pause. What is this? AA? Also of late the podcast begins with a suggestion to “friend” John on facebook, so you can find other common friends who are “Mormons like you.” That was perhaps my second clue that the purpose of the podcast was changing. However, I joined the local group of Mormon Stories listeners here in DC and generally found them to be a great group of people that I disagree with on various religious issues. As if that’s a problem for me. (Mormon studying theology at Catholic U here, hello!)
When the chance came to organize a local conference for others who listen to the conference, I felt inclined to help out, so became part of the organizing committee. Fun group of people. Very dedicated, and as scarily organized as any group in the church I’ve seen before. (The term "scarily organized" comes from one of Susan's coworkers, who used it to describe Mormons in general.) Here's the committee, along with Greg Prince (the host), John, and Anne.
So, over the weekend of October 14-16, we held our conference. It was a wonderful time. I always love listening to Greg, one of our high councilmen. He wrote David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and gives, quite frankly, the most consistently awesome, spiritual, and mind-blowing high council talks I’ve ever encountered. His talk about the history of Mormon thought was very insightful.
We had three TED-style talks, one from John Dehlin, one from Steve Kovalenko, who has found peace by leaving the church, and one from a friend of mine, Chelsea Shields Strayer, who has found peace by staying in the church. Chelsea’s participation was originally my idea and I’m glad she came. It was fitting at least for me personally because Chelsea and I were in the same ward growing up together and even took the bioethics class at BYU where we were in the same study group. That bioethics class was one of the foundational classes in my personal relationship with the institutional church, because it was really the first time where I saw, in writing, up on the overhead projector, how the church’s policies on some things (like birth control) have evolved over time without direct revelation on them (like polygamy or the priesthood ban). So seeing her again was a delight for me personally, but not just because she’s just so friggin’ intelligent you can’t help but have your mind blown just by talking with her.
These conferences always seem to include what have been come to be known as a “testimony” meeting. That’s not quite the best term for it, but “open mike time” doesn’t capture it exactly either. But it’s just a time for the people who came to our conference to stand and tell their own stories. I myself stood up and talked for a bit. If you go listen to the podcast recording of that session, I start at about 20 minutes in and talk for 3 or 4 minutes. (The conference is linked later in this blog entry.) Sorry about the scratchy voice; I was sick. Really, these sessions are the culmination of John’s vision about creating spaces for Mormons of all stripes to come together. We even had people from the Netherlands and Brazil who came to DC for our conference!
But for me, the best part of the conference was talking to one of the other participants. This man, John (not Dehlin) was one of the people who got married, even though both he and his wife knew he was gay, and lived with that for many years before the dissonance became too much. He then left/was kicked out of the church, and now lives here in the DC area. He called himself an atheist, gay, excommunicated Mormon. Yet he told me a story of how he was once sitting at temple square after all of these things had happened (he said “if you’re going to be an apostate, you probably shouldn’t hang out on temple square,” ha) and how a kind old gentleman had walked up and asked to sit next to him. John said that was okay, and the two of them struck up a conversation. At some point this old man said to John something to the effect of “the angels of heaven rejoice over your faith and testimony.” Now, it’s just bizzare that anybody would say that to an excommunicated, gay, atheist former Mormon. But John shared this story with a quiver in his lip when he spoke of it as a blessing from this old man who he had never before met, and who he has never seen since. Later, in sharing this experience with his Mom, she said that it must have been one of the three Nephites. And again, as he spoke of this, he did so with great emotion and with a tear in his eye. He knew that he was being completely contradictory when he said that he was an atheist, gay, excommunicated Mormon, but one who believed in the three Nephites, because he believed that he had met one of them.
The apostle Paul speaks of charity, the love of God, and that it “seeketh not her own.” In many ways, the people who gravitate towards Mormon Stories conferences are not “my own.” In general I find their approach to Mormonism an inadequate explanation for Joseph Smith and the church he founded and the scriptures he produced (warts and all, which I am aware of). I’m also deeply concerned about their appropriation of the term “Mormon,” which I don't think should be used culturally or genetically. It’s not a gene, and it’s not a local charity organization. It’s a religion. I’ve talked about this before, in response to an earlier draft of the shared values statement.
So why did I go? Why did I hang out with a bunch of (largely) disaffected Mormons with whom I disagree with a lot for an entire weekend?
I think my experience was best summed up in my encounter with John the gay atheist excommunicated Mormon who believes he met one of the three Nephites. Even though his personal beliefs seem to completely logically contradict each other (can you be atheist and believe in the three Nephites?), yet in the moment he told me his story, we shared something. And I feel I was the better for him having taken the time to share part of his life that meant a lot to me. I hope he’s the better for having talked with me, but I’m pretty sure I came out on top of that exchange. And in that moment I think we both had charity for one another.
I think I’ll keep hanging out with all these people. Because they’re awesome. And I want to be awesome too.
You can listen to the conference at the following links:
Greg Prince’s keynote talk, with a Q&A session at the end.
The 3 TED-style talks.
The “testimony” meeting. (I’m at about 20 minutes in, talking about “what I’m doing here.” This blog entry is a much longer, more detailed version of my comments there.)
Bonus: Picture of me and John Dehlin on a bench talking about cool stuff.
John’s a great guy, and I appreciate what he’s trying to do. Hopefully my being part of the organizing committee was a bit of my trying to leave the ninety-nine sheep and find the one (not that anybody is my project), and to support what John is doing. John’s trying to find a place for everybody to feel comfortable. I can get behind that. So I did.
And I’m the better for it.